Mikhail Bakunin

Mikhail Bakunin was a Russian anarchist who was highly critical of both Marxism and religion. Despite only ever publishing one full-length book - and then only posthumously- Bakunin's ideas continue to be influential in anarchist circles. In this explanation, we will take a closer look at Bakunin's ideas, whilst underscoring some of his more unorthodox views.  

Mikhail Bakunin Mikhail Bakunin

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Contents
Table of contents

    Mikhail Bakunin's biography

    Born in 1814, Mikhail Bakunin was a Russian revolutionary and key figure in collectivist anarchism. Despite being born into Russian nobility, Bakunin was opposed to class inequality and capitalism. He viewed justice as synonymous with equality and argued that individual freedom could only be achieved if all were equal.

    Bakunin sought the abolition of private property in favour of collectivisation and argued for equal means of subsistence, support, education, and opportunity for all. Bakunin’s most famous work is his unfinished manuscript titled God and the State published in 1871.

    Collectivism is an ideology that embraces the belief that the group is more important than the individual.

    Mikhail Bakunin: God and the State

    God and the State is an unfinished manuscript published after Bakunin's death. It is his only published book-length work. The manuscript was originally intended to be part of Bakunin's wider body of work. However, it remained unfinished at the time of his death in 1876.

    In God and the State, Bakunin is very critical of religion, particularly Christianity. He argues that the state uses religion as a weapon and that the very nature of religion is one that can be equated to enslavement and impoverishment. Bakunin goes on to denounce all forms of religion and authoritarian tyranny in his work. In his view, for mankind to experience self-determination, religion must be overthrown.

    Mikhail Bakunin Portrait of Mikhail Bakunin StudySmarterPortrait of Mikhail Bakunin, Wikimedia Commons

    In one of the more memorable lines in God and the State, Bakunin declares:

    The idea of God implies the loss of human reason and justice; it is the most decisive negation of human liberty, and results in the enslavement of man, both in theory and practice.

    Interestingly, the original title of Bakunin's manuscript published in 1882, was not in fact God and the State but rather Historical Sophisms of the Doctrinaire School of Communism. The change in name was due to the fact that at the time of Bakunin's death in 1876, the book's original title was unknown. It was not until years later that the original title was discovered.

    Mikhail Bakunin and Anarchism

    Years after his death, Bakunin remains one of the world's most influential anarchist thinkers and is credited as being a pioneer of the tradition of revolutionary socialist and social anarchist thought. Bakunin is also known for his fierce opposition to Marxism. As an anarchist, Bakunin's beliefs ran counter to the Marxist revolutionary goal of establishing a ruling proletariat class, which Bakunin argued would be nothing more than a proletariat dictatorship.

    Anarchism is a political ideology which has at its core the rejection of the state and all forms of coercive authority.

    Anarchy

    When we hear the term anarchy, which comes from the Greek language and means ‘without a ruler’, we commonly associate it with chaos. However, this is not what anarchism entails. Indeed, anarchism rejects hierarchy and all forms of coercive authority, but in its place, it advocates the ordering of society based on cooperation and voluntary participation. Whilst most ideologies seek to tell us what authority and rule should look like, anarchism is unique in that it rejects both rule and authority.

    Mikhail Bakunin's beliefs

    Throughout his life, Bakunin maintained an unwavering faith in the transformative powers of revolution. He believed that revolution was required to cleanse society of all its wrongdoings. The revolution, according to Bakunin, would be ignited through direct action, in which there would be a series of actions (targeted violence, mass protest, and the refusal to pay taxes) in order to catalyze the revolution. Through widespread revolt and revolution, the oppressed would be freed from the coercive control of the state and authoritative hierarchies.

    Direct action includes the use of strikes, demonstrations, and other methods of public protest.

    Bakunin stressed the importance of the need for a bottom-up revolution as he argued that it must be those who are being oppressed that rise up against the coercive forces in order for them to be successful.

    In the aftermath of the revolution, Bakunin believed that society would be structured into a stateless society that aligned more accurately with the true nature of humans. These societies would be structured around federalism and would be made up of voluntary associations of free individuals who have been liberated from a state-controlled society.

    Federalism is a mixed system of government that combines a general government with regional governments in a single system.

    Due to the collective nature of this post-revolution society, individuals would voluntarily express their true human nature, which would be both altruistic and cooperative, as there would be no coercive form of authority to force individuals into acting in a specific way. Bakunin believed this to be true freedom. This freedom would also enhance social solidarity which would, in turn, create a society that is both moral and just and has the capability to self-regulate.

    Altruism: the quality of having a selfless concern for the well-being of others.

    Aside from federalism, Bakunin also called for the restructuring of society based on collectivist ideals with a particular focus on economic collectivisation. Bakunin believed that the means of production should have common ownership and all private property should be abolished. This would then result in the promotion of equality and freedom, washing away the traces of privilege and exploitation.

    Bakunin’s rejection of the state

    Mikhail Bakunin viewed the state as illegitimate. For him, the state hindered and encroached upon the personal freedoms of individuals. He believed that the state encouraged centralisation in society, in which there was a concentration of political power in the hands of the elites who ran the state. According to Bakunin, this concentration of power is used by the state to assert dominance over the non-elites. As a result of the state’s dominant and coercive nature, the liberties that should be afforded to each individual are then destroyed.

    Bakunin argued that not only was there a concentration of power amongst societies' elites but that the state used this control to promote violence to preserve itself. Individuals who are exploited by the state are actively coerced into preserving this oppressive force through militarism, patriotism, and the nationalist propaganda that the state force-feeds the population. Bakunin called for the state to be replaced in favour of a society that is based on collective ownership.

    Militarism: the belief that a nation should maintain a strong military capability and be prepared to use it to defend and promote the national interests of the state.

    Bakunin’s views on religion

    In line with the majority of anarchist thinkers, Bakunin saw religion as a coercive force and an illegitimate form of authority. From Bakunin's perspective, religion uses concepts of hell and heaven to force people into obedience against their will. It also upholds class inequality by keeping the poor and working-class disillusioned and believing that despite their struggles on earth they would receive grandeur in heaven.

    Mikhail Bakunin Religion as a coercive force StudySmarterA nineteenth-century depiction of heaven and hell by Octave Tassaert, Wikimedia Commons.

    Bakunin believed that this disillusion kept many people from uncovering the truly coercive nature of religion and subsequently rising up against this form of coercion and control. For Bakunin, religion also served to reinforce state control. He argued that a belief in God undercut the possibility of independent thought and encouraged the acceptance of divine authority.

    In addition, Bakunin believed that religion promoted ignorance and a lack of rational questioning due to the nature in which it made individuals submit themselves wholeheartedly to the belief in divine authority. This submission meant that individuals became accustomed to being controlled, whether by the state or by religion. Bakunin was vehemently against religion and the church and even encouraged their abolition by any means necessary.

    Bakunin and human nature

    Bakunin believed in the sociability and cooperative nature of humans, arguing that they were also inherently autonomous and rational. Due to their sociable nature, he argued that it was only within a society that humans could experience liberation, and to live outside of society would deprive humans of fulfillment. To live within a society was important, as a society created ideas of justice and morality that are critical to the development of humans.

    Bakunin also believed that through collectivism humans could liberate themselves from the constraints of the external world, as he firmly believed that individuals could attain autonomy and character development only in a social context. For Bakunin, the existence of social solidarity was critical to human nature. He echoes this sentiment in his work The Immorality of the State when he states ‘man is born into society, just as an ant is born into an ant-hill and a bee into its hive’.

    Mikhail Bakunin: Quotes

    On the state and government:

    In every State, the government is nothing but a permanent conspiracy on the part of the minority against the majority, which it enslaves and fleeces.

    On church and religion:

    People go to church for the same reasons they go to a tavern: to stupefy themselves, to forget their misery, to imagine themselves, for a few minutes anyway, free and happy.

    All religions, with their gods, their demigods, their prophets, their messiahs, and their saints, were created by the credulous fancy of men who had not attained the full development and full possession of their faculties.

    On human nature and equality:

    From the naturalistic point of view, all men are equal. There are only two exceptions to this rule of naturalistic equality: geniuses and idiots.

    Mikhail Bakunin - Key takeaways

    • Bakunin was a collectivist anarchist who believed in an economy that featured common ownership.
    • He authored the book God and the State, which was critical of Christianity.
    • Bakunin was fiercely opposed to all forms of coercive authority. This included the state and religion, which he believed should be abolished by any means necessary.
    • Bakunin viewed revolution as a way to overthrow the existing state system.
    • Bakunin was a fierce critic of Marxism believing that its revolutionary goals would result in a dictatorship of the proletariat.
    • Bakunin had a utopian view of a post-revolutionary society and maintained the belief that without coercive authority human beings would be able to live together in cooperation and harmony which was their true nature.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Mikhail Bakunin

    Who was Mikhail Bakunin?

    Mikhail Bakunin was a Russian revolutionary and key figure in the collectivist anarchism field.

    What did Mikhail Bakunin do?

    Bakunin was a Russian nobleman who opposed class inequality and capitalism.

    Why was Bakunin expelled from the First International?

    Bakunin was expelled from the First International because he was perceived as an enemy of Marxism.  

    What are Mikhail Bakunin's beliefs?

    Mikhail Bakunin viewed justice as synonymous with equality and believed that the freedom of each person would only be achieved if everyone had equality.

    What is Mikhail Bakunin's anarchism?

    Mikhail Bakunin's idea of anarchism is collectivist. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    When was Mikhail Bakunin born?

    What field of anarchism has Bakunin contributed to?

    What was the original name for God and the State?

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